President Bush and Government Ethics

HOLD the sleaze, please. That is one of our first requests to President Bush. One of the black marks on Ronald Reagan's presidency - eight years that in many respects were successful, even historic - was the frequency with which members of his administration smudged the ethical boundaries of their public trusts. Even discounting for some partisan demagoguery on the subject (and mindful that the great majority of Reagan appointees served with honesty and distinction), one is left with the conclusion that many Reagan officials paid scant heed to ethical requirements. They seem to have viewed public service as a way to ratchet up private earning power.

During the campaign and since, Bush has been steely in his denunciation of corner cutting by public officials. He says he won't be kind or gentle with wrongdoers in his administration, and he has charged the new White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, with riding herd on the ethical demeanor of appointees.

An early test will be Bush's determination and skill in working with Congress to fashion ethics legislation with teeth. In November President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have tightened restrictions on lobbying by former government officials and aides. The veto may have been warranted. Reagan's department heads were unanimous that the bill (which would not have applied to Reagan administration workers) could have deterred qualified people from entering government. Also, Congress, as is its wont, took it easy on itself.

Nonetheless, it certainly is possible to draft a tough but fair bill that will curb conflicts of interest on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Bush and congressional leaders should give high priority to this objective.

The answer to government sleaze goes beyond stiffer regulations, however. Rules can't cover every situation, and clever people will always find the seams. Far more important, Washington needs to reinvigorate what might be called the ethos of the handshake deal. Ethics - integrity, really - is more a matter of the heart than of the head.

The word honor has a rather quaint ring to it, today: which only shows how much modernism, relativism, and situationalism have muddied our moral waters.

Among the things that make George Bush boyish in some eyes is that he seems genuinely to believe in such things as honor and public trust - words that, in the '80s, make sophisticates self-conscious.

It is said of President Reagan, with much justice, that he restored pride in America. Might it be said of President Bush, when he leaves office, that he restored honor as a central element of public service?

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